EVERYONE deserves a second chance, and with the Lewisham College Football Academy that is exactly what you get.

The government-funded programme, now in its fifth year, combines work and play to hand youngsters, who may have lost their way in life, a route back.

The majority of pupils on the programme sign up in a bid to further their football careers whether it be on the playing, coaching or scouting side but unless they get their heads down in the classroom they cannot put their feet to good use out on the pitch.

Iain Dowie is a frequent visitor to the academy's training ground in Beckenham, where Charlton-affiliated coaches such as Aaron Jacob, Dave Chatwin and Jeff Hawkins put the boys, mostly aged between 16 and 19, through their paces.

The courses are divided evenly between the classroom and the football pitch, with around 13 hours a week spent on each.

Discipline is fair but firm, with any misbehaviour punished by a spell on the sidelines.

Jacob, who combines his role as the academy's head coach with his position as head co-ordinator of the Charlton Youth Development Squad, understands that the government's targets have to be met or the college's funding may be withdrawn.

He said: "Although my interest is mainly on the footballing side, we have to recognise that if we're producing boys who are talented players but have no academic qualities or life skills, we're not really doing our job.

"It's all about getting the balance right, and I think we do. I honestly believe it's the best programme of its type I've seen.

"They know the consequences if they cross the line, but they're a great bunch of lads to work with so it's rarely a problem.

"From a purely playing perspective the current crop of players are probably the strongest we've had since I started at the academy."

Midfielder Tommy Daley, from Deptford, clearly shares Jacob's enthusiasm and confidence.

The NVQ Level 3 student, now in his fourth and final year at the academy, believes the process started by former academy coach Alex Inglethorpe now manager at Exeter City is beginning to bear fruit.

The 20-year-old said: "The team spirit we've got here is fantastic. There's no arguing and everyone encourages one another.

"Alex Inglethorpe got us all pulling in the right direction, and now Aaron, Jeff and Dave have taken us on to the next level.

"I still stay in touch with Alex, who said I could go to Exeter any time for a trial.

"I have played for Barnet reserves, but I've got to be realistic.

"I want to play semi-pro football, but I'm probably not going to make a living out of playing, which is why I have to keep all my options open."

Realising the harsh realities of the beautiful game is something course tutor John Bennett is keen to stress to his young charges.

He said: "We can guarantee the boys they will be better players once they leave the academy provided they are willing to listen and learn, of course but what we can't promise them is that they will become professional footballers.

"We've got good contacts at local clubs like Bromley, but they have to realise they're not going to be earning a fortune playing at that level.

"We show them the contracts of players playing in the Conference, and it's often a shock to the system.

"That's why a lot of them choose to take their FA badges, so they can make a career through coaching."

One such student is goalkeeper Mo Abarak, who will return to the college next year in a coaching capacity to complete his Modern Apprenticeship, before beginning a Sports Science degree at Brighton University.

Mo organised the squad's trip earlier in the year to Holland where they won the Bon Giorno Cup, which featured sides drawn from across the Czech Republic and Germany.

The star of the show was Max Gradel, a former Auxerre forward who bagged 11 goals and collected the player of the tournament award.

The college will need him and Michael Makasi, a powerful defender, to be on top of their game if they are to take the forthcoming Umbro Cup, due to be held in Manchester.

The academy is currently recruiting students for the 2005/06 academic year. If you are 16-19, playing a high standard of football and want the chance to further your development, call the college on 020 8694 3375.